Pope Francis must launch an investigation into decades of abuse of girls and young women at Magdalene laundries, the United Nations has demanded.
It has also called for religious orders involved or the Vatican itself to pay compensation to survivors and families of victims of the notorious Catholic-run workhouses.
In a scathing attack on the Catholic Church’s attitude to widescale sex abuse and torture meted out by its own priests and nuns, the UN human rights committee has also urged the Holy See to open its files on paedophiles and bishops who concealed their crimes.
Referring specifically to the Magdalene laundries scandal – recalled most recently in the Oscar-nominated film 'Philomena' – the Vatican is accused of taking no action to investigate the abuse.
Nor did church authorities compel nuns who ran the workhouses to cooperate with police inquiries into those who organised and knowingly profited from unpaid work by girls incarcerated in the laundries, it said.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) said it was particularly concerned that:
* Girls placed in the institutions were forced to work in slavery-like conditions and were often subject to inhuman, cruel and degrading treatment as well as to physical and sexual abuse;
* They were deprived of their identity, of education and often of food and essential medicines and were imposed with an obligation of silence and prohibited from having any contact with the outside world;
* And unmarried girls who gave birth before entering or while incarcerated in the laundries had their babies forcibly removed from them.
The laundries – institutions for single mothers detained through the courts or often moved in by their family or clergy for being sexually active – were run by four Catholic religious orders: The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, The Sisters of Charity, and The Good Shepherd Sisters.
The last laundry, at Sean McDermott Street in Dublin, closed in 1996.
It is not the first time they have been highlighted by the UN. In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture said it was gravely concerned by the failure of the Irish State to “protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene Laundries”.
Since then, the Government has set up a State compensation scheme for survivors.
Several hundred women who have applied to the redress fund are to be paid tax-free sums, ranging from €11,500 to €100,000.
But the Magdalene Survivors Together group, which represents survivors in Ireland and the UK, has criticised religious orders for not contributing to the compensation.
The UN said the Catholic orders which ran the workhouses came under the authority of the Pope, who should launch an internal investigation into religious personnel working in the laundries and ensure those responsible are reported to authorities for prosecution.
The watchdog also called for full compensation to be paid to the victims and their families either through the congregations themselves or through the Holy See “as supreme power of the Church and legally responsible for its subordinates”.
The UN committee demanded the Catholic church takes responsibility for the physical and psychological recovery of survivors.
Campaigners Justice For Magdalenes said the report points out that the Catholic church refused to accept unanimous survivor testimony that they were imprisoned and subjected to forced labour, torture as well as other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
“None of the orders have offered an apology to Magdalene survivors, nor have they contributed to the compensation fund,” the group said in a statement.
“The Catholic church has not made any attempt to instigate an internal investigation into Magdalene abuse, nor has it held anyone accountable for what happened.
The UN watchdog has also accused the Vatican of systematically adopting policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children worldwide over decades.
The findings were published after the Holy See was hauled before a day-long interrogation last month on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The UN blasted what it branded a “code of silence” used to keep victims quiet and attacked the Vatican for putting the reputation of the church and alleged offenders over the protection of children.
“The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by, and the impunity of, the perpetrators,” it said.
The Vatican said it would study the report and reiterated its commitment to defending and protecting children’s rights.